Could trains be moved underground in the heart of Salt Lake City?
An artist rendering of a possible new train station as a part of the Rio Grand Plan. The project would include buried rail lines near the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City. (Friends of the Rio Grande)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Christian Lenhart’s interest in revitalizing the historic Rio Grande railroad station began when he served as a FrontRunner rail host years ago, when he discovered people coming downtown had to travel a few blocks from the area to find somewhere to be.
He’d inform riders they’d have to get on either another bus or light-rail train to get to places like Temple Square, City Creek or Gallivan Plaza from Salt Lake Central Station.
“People would always be disappointed. You’re really not in Salt Lake City yet — you’re on this plaza,” he said, recalling the reaction of passengers.
This inspired him to start drawing up a plan to shift the railroad lines east, back to their original alignment near the Rio Grande Depot. Lenhart, a civil engineer, posted his idea online, where it got positive feedback from other engineers. One thing led to another, and the group met with Salt Lake City officials. City leaders began looking into it more and they have now filed paperwork to seek federal grants for a feasibility study.
It also led to the formation of the Friends of the Rio Grande. The group and city officials held their first public meeting inside a busy Woodbine Food Hall Thursday night, where they shared the current status of what’s now known as the Rio Grande Plan.
Here’s how it works. The plan calls for moving the lines back to their original alignment on 500 West and behind the historic depot once again. There would be a mile-long stretch — from South Temple to 900 South — where the lines are underground, using what’s called a train box.
Crews would rebuild the street above the lines, while eventually removing the current tracks at 600 West. This would create new space for city development.
Lenhart points out that places like Los Angeles and Reno, Nevada, already have train boxes, and other cities are also looking to build these, so the concept isn’t at all far-fetched.
“It’s a very doable project,” he said. “This is not flying cars in the future.”
The plan also calls for moving Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX lines to the Depot, too, helping the historic building become a gateway into the downtown core, again — similar to the Denver Union Station.
One concept puts TRAX lines through 400 South before meeting up with the current lines at the intersection of 400 South and Main Street. Another line ventures south on 400 West before cutting east and meeting up with the line at 200 West, by about 1300 South, utilizing an old rail line.
Salt Lake City leaders and planners, and members of Friends of the Rio Grande speak during a meeting at Woodbine Food Hall in Salt Lake City Thursday night. The event was the first public meeting about the proposed Rio Grande Plan. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)
City planners and members of the Friends of the Rio Grande are quick to acknowledge that planning is still in its early stages and many of the designs made public are only “aspirational” at this point, though. That said, Salt Lake City has signaled interest in the project, seeking federal funding for a feasibility study.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall even referenced the project during her State of the City address on Tuesday, calling it an “incredibly compelling” redevelopment idea.
“Bridging the physical gulf between downtown and the west side would not only help heal the century-old divide in our city but could unlock the massive economic opportunity in the 75 acres that lie between,” she said.
When could it happen?
One resident at the meeting said he would like to see the project completed by 2030 or 2034, in time for the Winter Olympics — should Salt Lake City win its bid to host. Yet, the feasibility study will help determine the next steps, including whether any environmental remediation needs to happen, a better idea of cost and how to secure the funds to make it happen.
Could we get it done by 2030 for the Olympics? … I think it would be tough, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t shoot for that.
–Nick Norris, director of Salt Lake City’s planning division
Nick Norris, the director of Salt Lake City’s planning division, told KSL.com the city should know the outcome of its grant proposal in the next few months. If approved, the city’s transportation department would lead the study, which could be completed as early as next year. Then, it’s up to funding to turn it into a reality.
While the exact cost of the project is not known, Lenhart said it would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars — as was the case in Reno and Denver. That’s why city officials say the Utah Legislature and the federal government would also have to be on board.
The same goes for UTA and Union Pacific, which own the lines. Group members are optimistic Union Pacific will support the plan, noting that it did cooperate with the similar plan in Reno, but they have not received any public comment from the company.
“If things align, it could happen fairly quickly,” Norris said. “Could we get it done by 2030 for the Olympics? … I think it would be tough, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t shoot for that.”
A possible economic boost
The project could solve a major issue between the east and west sides, removing a physical barrier between the two. Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy, who represents the area, said trains are one of the biggest issues constituents complain about, especially when they are blocking vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy, right, talks with a person following a Rio Grande Plan meeting at Woodbine Food Hall in Salt Lake City Thursday evening. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)
Lenhart believes the project could also unlock new land opportunities for an area that’s already poised for change in the future. A year-round farmer’s market and an innovation hub are two of the projects proposed for the Rio Grande district.
The ultimate goal is to replicate the success of Denver Union Station. Denver’s Regional Transportation District reported that the $500 million in public investment to kickstart the project resulted in $3.5 billion in private development projects near the station — and the area now generates more than $2 billion in economic impact every year.
“It won’t be many years that this project would repay itself,” Lenhart said. “It depends on your timescale but this project is self-funding. It just needs the upfront capital from the government to make it work.”
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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.
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